THE MAGAZINE      May/June 2002
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From the DOS Dog Days to E-Filing

The solution to bygone printing problems paved the way to easy document exchange.


Rheumy old-timers remember back when the grim complexity of doing stuff on computers was matched by the grim complexity of printing that stuff out. Computing is still far too complicated, but printing is one element that has been largely tamed. Plug in the printer; print out the stuff. It just works. Some credit for this small miracle goes to very clever software called Postscript, introduced by Adobe Systems in 1984.

Those were the dog days of DOS, a time when computers and printers cared little for each other. Each printer (and there were hundreds of different types even then) required its own "driver," which had to be built into each piece of software requiring printed output. Each font size had to be specifically described. And the document that printed out, even after all this fuss, rarely looked like what you saw on screen. Interested in both images and text? On the same page? In a way that preserved your compositional artistry? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Postscript solved the problem by coming up with a method of describing the entire page as a whole, instead of as an unruly collection of fonts, lines and images. Postscript treats fonts simply as mathematical formulae so that a font needs to be defined only once. You are thereafter able to stretch, enlarge, reverse, italicize and generally monkey with the font as you please. The same holds true for both text and images.

Postscript became the one driver the printer and the computer needed to know about. All very handy—and exactly the sort of thing that Apple Computer needed in 1985 for its new $7,000 LaserWriter printer. Combine the Macintosh, the LaserWriter and Postscript and suddenly you have the whole new industry we now call desktop publishing.

Adobe Acrobat and PDF

One of the best things about Postscript was how it introduced the blessed notion of "device independence" into the computing world. If both the software and printer knew about Postscript, then it was irrelevant whether or not the PC had the right printer driver.

Adobe knew it was on to a good thing and began looking for ways to capitalize on its lead in page description technology. Here’s the problem Adobe hoped to solve by the early ’90s: You could create richly formatted documents in word processing, desktop publishing, graphics and presentation packages running on Windows, Macintosh or Unix systems. But nothing rose above the babble; nothing allowed you to visualize a file without being in the application that created it in the first place. Nothing, that is, until Adobe’s 1993 release of Acrobat.

Adobe Acrobat is an extension of Postscript that allows documents to be accurately displayed on any computer without recourse to the software that created them. It works this magic by taking the source file and converting it—or "distilling" it, as Adobe would say—into Adobe’s own Portable Document Format. Once a file is in PDF form, it can be read on any machine with an Acrobat Reader—which is, effectively, every machine going today, whether it’s running Windows, the Mac OS, Unix, Linux or even the Palm OS.

Talk about timing. Acrobat came out just before the Web was kind enough to go public. Adobe had the good sense to drop the cost of its Acrobat Reader from $50 to free just as Netscape 1.0 opened up a whole new world in late 1994. And Adobe had the further good sense to make sure that PDF files worked flawlessly from within Netscape. Eight years later, the Acrobat Reader has been downloaded more than 400 million times.

And these days, Acrobat can do a lot more tricks, making it a smash hit winner in law firms, particularly for the sticky task of exchanging electronic documents. Forget the Word vs. WordPerfect ruckus. Convert the final document to PDF, regardless of the original application, and just send the PDF instead. Adobe has thrown in all kinds of security so the PDF can’t be altered if you don’t want it to be. You can password-protect parts or functions of the PDF to prohibit, say, copying or pasting or even, ironically, printing. It’s a great way to work with complex forms that would strangle a word processor. Plus, a PDF can’t carry a virus payload and ruin your whole day. Oh, and the printed PDF will, of course, look exactly like the on-screen document.


By loading Acrobat with features that matter and giving away the Acrobat Reader, Adobe has created an effective and almost unassailable standard for document exchange. It’s so effective that governments have jumped to PDF as the best way to convey forms over the Internet. Even the lumbering Internal Revenue Service is on board. Adobe reports that April 13, 14 and 15 are the heaviest days of the year for its Web servers, as taxpayers frantically log on and download PDF versions of tax forms.

And not a company to miss a hint, Adobe has made PDF forms interactive so they can be filled in online. The IRS and numerous other agencies allow you to complete and file many forms electronically.


More interesting from a legal perspective is what’s happened in the two-steps-forward-one-step-back world of electronic case filing. Courts and various levels of government throughout North America have struggled with the weighty technical and legal issues surrounding e-filing. But owing to the ubiquity of Adobe, they have been mercifully spared the misery of adjudicating the Word vs. WordPerfect schism. Either submit e-filings in PDF or don’t submit them at all. Simple.

The poster child for a successful e-filing venture is the Case Management and Electronic Case File system now rolling through the district and bankruptcy courts. A project of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, CM/ECF is a loud proponent of the benefits of the PDF approachÑand it has a full head of steam. Present plans are for all federal courts to implement CM/ECF by 2005. That means a radical shift in methodology and tools for a lot of lawyers. It also means that you should get cozy with Acrobat real soon.

Mark Tamminga ( practices law and fiddles with software at Gowling Lafleur HendersonLLP in Toronto.


For details on the CM/ECF e-filing system and implementation plans, go to For more on Adobe Acrobat and PDF, go to